How Mercedes can win review with 'smoking gun' evidence of Verstappen Brazil incident

F1

Max Verstappen was almost given the black & white flag for his defence against Lewis Hamilton in the Brazilian GP, it has emerged. But Mercedes could win a review, thanks to the "no investigation necessary" verdict

Lewis Hamilton follows Max Verstappen closely in the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix

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The debate over the Turn 4 incident in the Sao Paulo GP involving Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen regained momentum on Tuesday when Mercedes formally confirmed that it has asked the FIA for a right to review.

The request came after the forward-facing onboard footage from Verstappen’s car, not available to the FIA at the time, reached the public domain via F1 and Sky.

The consequence is that during the Qatar GP weekend the Interlagos stewards – including ex-drivers Tonio Liuzzi and Roberto Moreno – will reconvene online to consider the Mercedes request.

It’s an unusual situation, because usually a right to review is asked for following the awarding of penalty that a team is unhappy with. In this case the “no investigation necessary” message appeared on the timing screens, and as such there was no deep dive into the incident in the stewards’ room.

On the face of it, Mercedes appears to hope that its request will initiate a further look at the incident and trigger a retrospective time penalty for Verstappen. Even five seconds will drop him to third behind Valtteri Bottas, losing the Dutchman three points in his battle with Hamilton, and creating a six-point swing in the constructors’ championship.

Toto Wolff must know that such an outcome is unlikely, but if nothing else Mercedes will at least make a point and put a further focus on driving standards and where the boundaries lie when cars are racing wheel-to-wheel.

It’s also a case of tit-for-tat after Red Bull filed a similar request in the wake of the British GP, following the first-lap crash that put Verstappen out of the race.

Hamilton received a 10-second penalty on that occasion, but he overcame it and won the race. Red Bull’s point was that the punishment was not harsh enough for the crime of putting their man into the barrier.

However the team’s request for review was rejected as its supposed new evidence was not regarded as sufficient to re-open the case.

Max Verstappen crashed out of 2021 British Grand Prix at Silverstone

Red Bull put forward a right to review in a bid to make Hamilton’s Silverstone penalty harsher

Grand Prix Photo

The Interlagos incident was yet another sign of the tension between the Mercedes and Red Bull camps, reflected not just in the on-track fight between the title-contending drivers but also much bitter acrimony off it.

“It’s a battle for the lead of the race, a very tight and intense battle for the world championship,” said FIA race director Michael Masi, who has the tricky task of trying to referee it. “And I think everything that we’ve seen over this weekend between the two teams just adds into that mix.

“Once you have an intense championship battle you’ve got both drivers and teams, they will absolutely try and do anything and everything possible from their perspective to win, and understandably so.”

The incident was also the latest of many up and down the field involving a controversy over a driver going wide off the track but being put there by a rival. In this case Hamilton didn’t get by on the outside line, and thus there was no question of gaining an advantage and giving the place back.

The ongoing issue is where to draw the line in terms of how much space the guy defending has to leave? What are the limits for “crowding” someone off the track? It’s a debate that has been going on for years.

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton bump fists after the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix

Fist bumps were the only contact in Brazil, but Mercedes is still calling for a penalty

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

On the morning of the Mexican GP Masi issued a note to the teams related specifically to drivers going straight on over the grass on the first lap, waiving the requirement to go behind the bollards but pointing out that no advantage could be gained.

In that note he also reminded everyone of a paragraph from the international sporting code that applies at all times and which notes that “manoeuvres liable to hinder other drivers, such as deliberate crowding of a car beyond the edge of the track or any other abnormal change of direction, are strictly prohibited. Any driver who appears guilty of any of the above offences will be reported to the stewards.”

That’s the context behind the Turn 4 incident at the following race in Brazil and the “no investigation necessary” message that so angered Mercedes. When told by his engineer Peter Bonnington Hamilton himself responded with a terse “of course.”

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That Mexican GP note was brought up by Wolff after the flag in Brazil as he tried to make a point.

“Whatever is in the [race] director’s notes, we’re going to accept,” he said. “I’m also OK if the director’s notes are being shredded, and we just race hard, like we did today.

“But if the director’s notes say that you can’t push anybody off the track in Mexico, and then obviously that’s valid here too, and then you’re actually being driven off the track – it’s just not very consistent, to call it that way.

“My discussion with the race director was not broadcast, but my reaction was: we’re clear that we’ll discuss it behind closed doors.”

Masi didn’t accept that there was any inconsistency relative to previous incidents or decisions.

“I’d disagree that it’s inconsistent,” he said. “You have a look at it, and as I’ve said many times before, you judge the incident on its merits, and you have a look at all of it.

“It wasn’t far off a black and white flag, to be brutally honest, for Max.”

“And let’s not forget, we have the overall ‘let them race’ principles. Looking at it all, with all of the angles that we had available, that philosophy was adopted.”

As to why those principles were applied he added: “I think if you look proximity of the cars, getting into the apex, where it is, nature of the corner. The fact that both cars went off, neither car lost position or anything like that, that was probably the general view of it.”

But wouldn’t Hamilton have made the corner had he not been edged off the road?

“If you sort of keep going a little bit further, they’re give or take about side on side,” said Masi. “So I think for the benefit of everyone, it was ‘let them race’ – so let them race.”

Intriguingly Masi did admit that he had thought about giving Verstappen a black and white ‘don’t do that again’ warning flag for the incident.

“I did, it certainly came into my mind, and then I sort of looked at it a few more times. And it wasn’t far off a black and white flag, to be brutally honest, for Max.”

Later Verstappen received one for a different incident, excessive weaving in front of Hamilton, shortly before the world champion made his successful pass.

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The big talking point of the last few days is that in deciding that no investigation was necessary the stewards were missing one crucial piece of evidence.

The way the onboard camera system works is that only one per car is streamed live back to the broadcast HQ and hence out to the world at large and to race control. The others are operating at all times, but the footage they capture is recorded and logged on the car for later download.

At the crucial moment during the incident the director switched from Verstappen’s front-facing camera to the rear view as Hamilton swept up behind him.

Thus while the race was in progress Masi and the stewards did not have access to the forward-facing view that showed Verstappen’s actions on the steering wheel. However he had already asked for the missing footage.

Could it be a smoking gun?

“Could be, absolutely. Possibly. But no, we didn’t have access to it. And obviously, it’s being downloaded. And once the commercial rights holder supplies it, we’ll have a look.”

That footage finally emerged on Tuesday. It didn’t, as some anticipated, show Verstappen actively changing direction in the middle of the corner and steering towards his rival.

However it did indicate that he was far from the apex and his usual line, and that he appeared to let the car drift out as wide as was necessary to ease Hamilton out of the way.

Was it just a hard but legitimate defence by Verstappen that made for great TV and fell within the ‘let them race’ principles, or was it something that overstepped the boundaries and robbed Hamilton of the chance to complete a clean passing move? Even among experts such as retired drivers views are split.

Toto Wolff after the 2021 Brazilian Grand Prix

Wolff: “It should have been a five-second penalty at least”

DPPI

It was within hours of the footage emerging that Mercedes put out a short statement saying that it had requested a petition to review which, as is well known, requires there to be “a significant and relevant new element is discovered which was unavailable to the parties seeking the review at the time of the decision concerned.”

As noted earlier this is an unusual case in that there was no “decision”, as in an official document noting a penalty or specifying “no further action.”

However, we have it on good authority that an announcement of “no investigation necessary” could formally be deemed a decision by the FIA, thus opening the door for a second look.

Mercedes has first to demonstrate that’s the case, and then the stewards will take the key step of deciding whether the video (and anything else that Mercedes may have gathered) is a “significant and relevant new element.”

They then have to decide whether their initial decision not to investigate still stands and then potentially move onto the next stage of conducting a hearing with the two drivers and the new video as the key piece of evidence.

It’s worth noting that, as part of the judgement in Silverstone that saw Hamilton penalised by 10 seconds, the stewards noted that “car 44 was on a line that did not reach the apex of the corner, with room available to the inside.” It remains to be seen whether that is regarded as any kind of precedent.

The saga will add an extra layer of intrigue as the F1 circus sets up shop in Qatar on Thursday, while talk about rear wings and Hamilton’s impressive straightline speed in Brazil stirred up by Red Bull will also continue.

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We have three races to go, and 78 points on offer, including those for fastest laps. Verstappen leads by just 14 at this stage, and should an investigation lead to a time penalty and drop him to third, his advantage will be cut to 11. Meanwhile Mercedes’ current lead of 11 in the constructors’ table could be extended to 17.

As noted earlier, such a retrospective penalty seems unlikely, and there’s not a great history of reviews leading to decisions being changed. However if nothing else it will allow Mercedes to blow off a bit of steam after the fraught Sao Paulo GP.

“The whole weekend went against us,” Wolff said after the flag. “We had a broken part on our rear wing, which we couldn’t look at, couldn’t analyse, failed the test.

“And after, disqualified, very harsh. And then you see on the Red Bull repairs three times in a row on a rear wing whilst being in parc fermé, with no consequence.

“And that’s one thing. And obviously that really peaked with the decision in the race, which was a really strong defence from Max, absolutely an inch over the limit, but he needed to do that to defend.

“And Lewis just managed it even more brilliantly by avoiding the contact and ending the race that way. But that was just over the line – it should have been a five-second penalty at least, and probably Max knew that.

“But just brushing it under the carpet? It’s just the tip of the iceberg. I mean, it’s laughable…”